09 November 2008

Preparing for the Onslaught

It has has started. The ombudsman at The Washington Post published this lament today about how the paper "tilted" toward Obama in its campaign coverage. I am sure we will see more of this gnashing of teeth. And I am sure too that the right-wing nutters will run with the laments as far as their whining will allow. Regular readers will know that I hardly am an Obama-niac. That said, this column is inane on several counts.

First, the ombudsman - Deborah Howell - is so focused on reporting the numbers that she hardly bothers to ask why they might turn out the way they do. She complains, for instance:
"The op-ed page ran far more laudatory opinion pieces on Obama, 32, than on Sen. John McCain, 13. There were far more negative pieces about McCain, 58, than there were about Obama, 32, and Obama got the editorial board's endorsement. The Post has several conservative columnists, but not all were gung-ho about McCain."
The first thing to note is that fully half of the opinion pieces on Obama that The Post were negative. More of those they ran on McCain were negative. But McCain was a crappy candidate who had to pull a stunt (i.e., name Palin as his running mate) in order to excite the base of his own party. Do we need to insist that a paper make up nice things to say about someone when his own partisans are lukewarm? OK, maybe saying negative things about McCain was like kicking a sick dog. But he was running for office after all. And he did pull boner after boner along the way. Beyond that, just maybe the editorial endorsement was deserved. There is a reason, after all, why we call it an endorsement - it's a judgment on the part of the editors. The fact that conservative commentators - and not just those whom The Post pays - thought McCain was a loser can hardly be held against the paper. Maybe the conservative columnists ought to have lied about their views?

Second, Ms. Howell seems to misunderstand the distinction between the preferences of the media and reality.
"Stories and photos about Obama in the news pages outnumbered those devoted to McCain. Reporters, photographers and editors found the candidacy of Obama, the first African American major-party nominee, more newsworthy and historic."
Maybe it's just me, but the issue here is not that reporters etc. simply thought the Obama campaign was historic. It was historic. Maybe the reporters and photographers and editors noticed something - we never before had had a plausible African American candidate for President. By contrast, John McCain was simply another in a long line of old white men running for President. And he was not a terribly compelling old white man at that. Ms. Howell! Wake up!

Finally, Ms. Howell, makes assertions that are, at best, ambiguous, and very likely wholly misleading. For instance, after praising the background profiles the paper ran on the candidates, she opines:
"But Obama deserved tougher scrutiny than he got, especially of his undergraduate years, his start in Chicago and his relationship with Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who was convicted this year of influence-peddling in Chicago. The Post did nothing on Obama's acknowledged drug use as a teenager."
Well, why? First, is it the case that The Post paid no attention to these alleged stories? Or, is it that they made initial queries and decided that there is nothing to them? The fact that The Post ran nothing on this litany of non-stories doesn't mean they "did nothing" with them. It may mean that they actively dismissed them as wacky or irrelevant. Ms. Howell provides no information about that. In any case, what precisely does Ms. Howell suspect about Mr. Obama's nefarious dealings during his years at Columbia? What do we need to know about his drug use that we don't already know? He admitted it. And even if, like virtually every American teenager, Obama engaged in illicit activities, what is the relevance of that to his current abilities and judgment? (After all, our current President was a drunk well past his college years and was a crappy student to boot. Who cares? His real problems - such as being an ideologue - are unrelated to such minor symptoms.) Do we know every mis-step taken by John McCain as a youth? Do we care? No. And no.

Ms. Howell is here simply pandering to the paranoid nutters who spend too much time watching Fox News or reading Matt Drudge or listening to Rush Limbaugh. If we want rumor and innuendo without substantiation we know precisely where to get it Ms. Howell. Do you think the FOX News folks (and their ilk) didn't poke under every possible rock? We all recall the notorious case of the Clintons murdering those like Vince Foster who'd become politically inconvenient? The issues Howell raises here are in that category. Note to Post ombudsman: the mere fact that some reader complains about something doesn't make it a problem.

Let's move on to more general matters. Here are the salient passages from a recent (late October) study of campaign coverage by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Ms. Howell refers to it in her column. The study examined campaign coverage during was the six weeks between the end of the conventions and the final debate:
"The media coverage of the race for president has not so much cast Barack Obama in a favorable light as it has portrayed John McCain in a substantially negative one, according to a new study of the media since the two national political conventions ended.

[. . .]

For Obama during this period, just over a third of the stories were clearly positive in tone (36%), while a similar number (35%) were neutral or mixed. A smaller number (29%) were negative.

For McCain, by comparison, nearly six in ten of the stories studied were decidedly negative in nature (57%), while fewer than two in ten (14%) were positive."

OK, so only a third of the press coverage devoted to Obama was positive. That means the rest - the other two-thirds - was mixed at best! The negative coverage on McCain was nearly two thirds negative. So what? Let's repeat what I've already noted. McCain ran a crappy campaign. He embarrassed himself by picking Palin as VP. And he looked like a fool for putting his campaign on hold to charge off to DC so he could meddle in the bailout negotiations. Even right wing columnists were mocking him. The numbers do not reflect a liberal bias. They reflect reality.

Indeed, the Pew folks discovered that: "Since the end of August, the two rivals have been in a virtual dead heat in the amount of attention paid, and when vice presidential candidates are added to the mix the Republican ticket has the edge." And that in a campaign where the other candidate was making an historically unprecedented bid! So the Republicans got a lot of attention and failed to turn that to their advantage. I don't call that bias, I call it incompetence.
Update: (13 November) ~ For an alternative assessment of the press performance - especially The Post's you might have a look at this column by Eric Alterman at The Nation.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

And, of course, you conveniently neglect to mention that he is, after all, a terrorist...

10 November, 2008 01:56  

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